Saturday, June 23, 2007

Book Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Arthur Dent is an ordinary, middle-class citizen of the United Kingdom on the planet, Earth. He wakes up one morning, goes into his bathroom to brush his teeth, sees something big, yellow, and menacing out of the window, spits, brushes some more, rinses his mouth, then realizes what that big, yellow something is. The local council is putting a bypass through--his house.

Understandably upset, Arthur argues with the foreman who is, in his turn, implacably determined that the bypass will be put through. Arthur takes the only course of action that seems rational at the time: he lays down in the mud in front of one of the bulldozers.

Enter Ford Prefect, an out-of-work actor and long-time friend of Arthur's. Ford has something important to tell Arthur. Now. At the local pub. He persuades the foreman to lay down in the mud in Arthur's place, runs off to the pub, orders six pints, and tells Arthur he has six minutes to drink three of them.

As Arthur is drinking--and trying to find out why, exactly, it is so important to drink the beer, Ford explains he is not from Guilford but from Betelgeuse. Arthur is convinced his friend has lost touch with reality and runs back home (don't you love these cosy English villages?) to find that his house is half-demolished.

Just then, a voice from above announces the presence of the Volgon Construction Fleet and the fact that Earth will be demolished in three make way for a new bypass.

And Arthur finds himself on board a space ship with Ford Prefect, the last surviving member of the human race. Ford, it turns out, really is from Betelgeuse and is also a roving field reporter for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the most widely sold book in the known Universe..

Well, not quite. Seems there was this party at this flat in Islington where Arthur met a girl, who, as it happens, has advanced degrees in math and astrophysics. Arthur tried to get on with her, but she left the party with a man claiming to have a space ship.

No, that's not the space ship Arthur and Ford are on now.

Douglas Adams was an absolute genius in coming up with names for his characters: Zephod Beeblebrux, Ford Prefect, Slartibartfast. His alien cultures are truly alien--the Volgons torture their captives by reading poetry. And if you've ever endured bad poetry, or art in any form, then read the critics rave reviews and wondered, "What are they talking about?", then you'll appreciate the scene where Arthur and Ford are captives of the Volgon and are forced to listen to the captain read his poetry. Truly genius.

That said, Hitchhiker's is definitely British, although the spelling in the Ballantine edition I picked up has been Americanized (pity, that). Think Monty Python in print. Not everything makes sense, although you have the feeling the story is going somewhere, although you're not quite sure where. I found myself smiling and laughing out loud, although if I had to explain it, I couldn't. The punch line is in the set up, which is often pages long.

This is my third exposure to Hitchhiker's and it didn't hurt. Watching the movie helped, although I suspect the movie combines elements of the second book, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. But when I read Marvin's lines, I hear Alan Rickman's wonderful rendition of the depressed (and depressing) robot.

I won't be giving away too much if I tell you the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything is 42. And humans are the third most intelligent species on Earth. Dolphins are second.

Of course, Hitchhiker's is not the end of the story. So I'm off with Arthur, Ford, Zephod (the Original), Marvin, and Trillian (the former Trish McMillan) to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. We're traveling first class, of course, on The Heart of Gold, equipped with the latest Improbability Drive. Zephod stole the ship at its launching, when he was President of the Galaxy. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

On the March Hare scale: 4 out of 5 Golden Bookmarks